Monthly Archives: November 2017

Talking Turkey on Tax Plans

Henry Clay Warmoth was a famously corrupt governor of Reconstruction-era Louisiana who never claimed to be anything other than the carpet bagging chiseler he was. “I don’t pretend to be honest,” he said. “I only pretend to be as honest as anybody in politics.”* And, as everyone knows, candor is harder to find in politics than molars in a hen house.

Warmoth would, no doubt, appreciate the truthy-falsey nature of the marketing campaign surrounding tax reform plans currently working their way through Congress. The recently passed plan by the House differs in pretty substantial ways from what’s currently being floated in the Senate, so who knows what specifics will emerge from the legislative difference splitting. Regardless, Republican proponents promise– crossed hearts, pinkie swear and everything—that once all is said and done, as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy put it, “Every single American is going to keep more of what they earn.

Well, not every American. Obviously. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, Congress’ non-partisan bean counter of tolls and tariffs, there’s winners and losers (you can see their report here). The short version is that some Americans–mostly big, important rich Americans–will get to keep a truckload more cash, more than $40 billion of it.  The middle class will get to keep a skosh more, at least until their tax breaks expire. Those earning under $40,000 are–surprise, surprise–being set up to get screwed.

It’s seems accurate enough that most people will get a modest bit of tax relief from the House bill (something on the order of a hundred bucks), but between 1-in-5 and 1-in-3 will actually see their taxes increase a bit. And a good chunk of the actual tax relief is set to turn into a pumpkin in a few years. The modest tax goodies for suckers, um, regular citizens, have an expiration date. This is needed in order to mathematically keep the deficit kraken submerged in a (fake) shallower sea of red ink. So, the number of people who will see their taxes rise as a result of Republican plans will grow over the long term. And who ends up paying more? Hint: If you’ve got more than six zeroes to the left of the decimal point in your checking account, don’t sweat it. The GOP has your back.

You can get a good sense of how the House Republican tax plan will effect Americans as a whole by just looking at what it will do for the roughly 45 people who at least nominally call me boss (they call me a lot of other stuff too, much of which I won’t repeat). I sit at the apex of the mighty knowledge producing machine known as the University of Nebraska’s Department of Political Science. Its employees include professors, administrative staff, adjuncts, teaching and research assistants. No one in this group is a 1 percenter (or even a 10 percenter), but at the top end there’s a group earning a decent upper middle-class income. That group includes me, so lover of lucre I am, I was eager to see how the Republican plan would line my pocket. To do this I used an online calculator designed to give you a rough idea of what your tax burden would look like if the House plan actually became law (there’s several to choose from, the one I used for all calculations in this post can be found here, and you can follow this link to figure out what your own tax payoff might look like).

For me, it turned out not a huge amount, a couple of hundred bucks give or take, with adjustments up or down based on which set of assumed numbers I plugged into the calculator. At the extreme end, punching in the most hopeful (and unrealistic) estimates I could get the calculator to spit out a tax savings for me of about eight hundred dollars. Let’s just round that out to a thousand because it makes the math easier. Using the Warmoth guide to veracity, then, I can honestly say the Republican plan would put an extra grand in my pocket.

Let’s take a look at the other end of the income spectrum in my department. On this thin end of the wage spectrum are teaching and research assistants. These are grad students who get paid a $16,000 annual stipend, plus a tuition waiver. Under current law, the tuition waiver is not counted as taxable income, but under the House Republican plan it is. So, tax relief for these guys means getting taxed on money they never had. The table below shows the difference in their tax bills under current law and the Republican plan.

Yep, their tax bill jumps by about 500 percent, increasing by about two thousand dollars. At least in my little world, then, what the Republican tax plan does is redistribute income from the have nots (grad students) to the haves (me). A thousand dollars translates into about twenty bucks a week. Putting that much extra in my weekly paycheck will have pretty much zero impact on my saving or consumption patterns. Taking two thousand dollars from a grad student is a serious hit—it represents a couple of months of take home pay.

Broadly speaking, this analogy seems to be generalizable. Current tax reform plans in Congress will be a huge boon to the Wall Street crowd, a huge boondoggle for the poor, and people in the middle like me are being offered twenty bucks a week to go along and pretend it’s all a good thing. Unlike Warmoth, though, some of us have met bribes we’re willing to refuse. This tax reform plan is a seriously bad idea. Honest.

Chernow, Ron, 2017. Grant.  New York: Penguin. p. 757

Moore or Less

Come December 12, the good citizens of Alabama will go to the polls and choose either an alleged pedophile or a Democrat to represent them in the United States Senate. It looks like it’ll be a close call. On the one hand, Republican candidate Roy Moore increasingly looks like a Harvey Weinstein-level perv. On the other hand, his opponent, Doug Jones, has a sordid personal story that makes him equally repellent to the good burghers of ‘Bama. Did I mention he’s a Democrat? Sure, Moore might have had an unhealthy interest in teenyboppers, but at least he doesn’t bear the mark of the beast — a “D” next to his name on the ballot.

The question of whether Alabama will go for the Dem or the deviate has created exactly the sort of migraine Republicans at the national level did not want or need. There is no good endgame here for the GOP. If Moore is elected they either have to accept a tribune of astonishing political toxicity into their midst, or vote to expel one of their own. The former increasingly seems like a non-starter–the last thing Republicans need going into the 2018 midterms is to have GOP interpreted “Grand Old Pedobears” by large swaths of suburbia. Sounds snappy and fits on a bumper sticker, but it’s not exactly a vote winner. Recognizing the potential damage to the party brand, Senator Cory Gardner–the guy running the Republican senate’s fundraising arm–has flatly argued for expulsion if Moore wins. Huge chunks of the GOP caucus have already declared Moore hotter than a two-dollar pistol, so there’s little doubt about the outcome if it comes to an expulsion vote.

Actually going through that process, though, would be the political equivalent of a Tabasco enema for Republicans in the Senate, an unpleasant procedure that’ll leave their butts stinging for some time.  Voting to expel Moore effectively requires them to publicly declare a member of their own party just got elected who is spectacularly, breathtakingly, unqualified, a guy whose character flaws are so deep they render him unfit to wield the power of political office. No doubt, Democrats will be happy to run with that: “They said it, not us. And come to think of it, does that description apply to any other Republican currently high up in the government you can think of?” The only silver lining in this scenario is that the Alabama governor would get to appoint someone to replace Moore, and presumably that would be a Republican who was not ick on a stick. All that gets the GOP, though, is back to its current small Senate majority at the low, low price of doing more for Democratic midterm electoral fortunes than actual Democrats (admittedly, that’s not saying much).

That Republicans are openly considering an expulsion vote even before the outcome of the election is known says volumes about just how poisonous Moore is considered to be to the party’s national fortunes. Rogues and mountebanks by the dozen have served in the United States Senate, yet only a handful have ever been expelled. The vast majority of them were Southern senators supporting the Confederate rebellion that precipitated the Civil War. The most recent senators to face the ignominy of having their colleagues give them the elbow were John Ensign in 2011 and Bob Packwood in 1995. Ensign was a Christian values hypocrite, an adulterer condemning Bill Clinton for chasing interns around the Oval Office while handing out financial favors to keep his own extramarital shagging on the QT. Packwood was accused of sexual abuse and/or assault by nearly 20 women. Both resigned before an official expulsion vote was taken.

As Moore seems doggedly determined to see the election through to the end, there’s a decent possibility the Senate will take the first official expulsion vote since 1942. The question back then was whether William Langer’s long history of payola, perjury and corruption made him morally unfit to serve in the upper chamber (the answer was no, he was seated on a 52-30 vote). Nobody in the majority party is going to relish taking a similar vote on Moore, but right now there are only two real options to avoid it.

The first is for the GOP to conjure up some sort of white knight write-in campaign. In other words, get voters to use the fill-in-the-blank option on the ballot to elect some Republican who does not have a reputation for cruising malls looking for underage dates. Moore’s primary opponent Luther Strange has been mentioned, and so has Jeff Sessions, former holder of the seat and current attorney general. That’s an unlikely Hail Mary. For one thing, it probably means getting at least half-a-million voters to show up and spell your name right. For another, you actually need a name and, three weeks out, there isn’t one. Neither Strange nor Sessions nor anyone else has shown much enthusiasm for a campaign short on time and long on improbabilities.

The only other option available is a Jones victory. And at this point, that seems the least awful outcome for the GOP. Some Senate Republicans are openly pulling for the Democrat. The national party has pulled funding, pulled staff, and is pulling its hair out trying to figure out a way to stop Moore. That’s made harder by the fact that Alabama Republicans continue to back him. Bibb County Republican Chair Jerry Pow said he’d vote for Moore even if he was a kiddie canoodler because, well, at least he’s not a Democrat. State Auditor Jim Ziegler defended Moore by saying what he’s accused of is no big deal because Mary was a teen and Joseph an adult so clearly … well, I’m damned if I know. The gist seemed to be that thirty-something dudes hooking up with fourteen-year-olds outside the local mall is biblically kosher or something. I’m not sure about that, though as people of all partisan persuasions reacted to Ziegler’s comments with a slack-jawed “Jesus Christ!” maybe there is a theological argument in there somewhere.

The bottom line is that Roy Moore is hurting the Republican Party. Just how bad the damage is, and how long it lasts, is down to the choice Alabama makes on December 12. For many of the conservative faithful who go to the polls the choice is clearly going to come down to the lesser of two evils. But which one? The Republican Party is clearly hoping that less is not Moore.

 

The Court Does Not Compute

 

 

Imagine a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court interrupting an attorney’s argument by saying, “sorry counselor, but I only read at a third grade level, so your brief is just gobbledygook to me.” It’d probably raise a question or two about that jurist’s ability competently adjudicate thorny legal issues, wouldn’t it? If the remark received an enthusiastic “me too” from a colleague peering mystified at an upside down copy of the Constitution, we’d probably worry about the capability of the court as a whole to decide critical matters of jurisprudence, not just an individual justice.

There’s no doubt that illiteracy in a Supreme Court justice would be greeted with open-mouthed astonishment. How could an individual bereft of an intellectual skill so basic and necessary to the job get elevated to such a high and influential office? On the other hand, if a justice cheerfully admits they are innumerate and will have to take off their shoes and socks if required to count past ten, no problem. An inability to read would clearly cause any jurist mortification and embarrassment. Being ignorant of basic mathematical principles, well, that just makes you as dumb as the next guy. To the mystification and mortification of us educators, there’s no shame in that.

Believe it or not, Chief Supreme Court Justice John Roberts recently more or less made exactly this sort of confession in open court. The me-no-likee-math moment came during oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford, a case that’s a big hairy deal likely to have far reaching effects on partisan control of state and federal governments for decades. Roberts’ chipper acknowledgement that he can’t deal with numbers is enough to set middle school math teachers on vibrate all by itself. But it’s bigger than that. What we have here is essentially an admission by the chief justice that he’s incapable of understanding the crucial argument at the heart of a potentially landmark case.

The issue here is partisan gerrymandering, a time-honored tradition practiced widely by both parties. Every ten years, after the decennial census, states are required to literally redraw the political map, adjusting the topology of congressional and state legislative districts to fit population shifts. As a general rule, whichever party controls the state legislature enthusiastically seizes this cartographical responsibility to maximize partisan advantage. In other words, they do their best to shuffle voters into a set of districts–a dab of Dems here, a skosh of Republicans there–to maximize the probabilities their party will win legislative seats.

While this sort of thing has always gone on, after the GOP’s “red tide” 2010 election, Republican majorities in many states took it to new extremes. This is what Gill v. Whitford is all about. In 2008’s Wisconsin State Assembly elections, Republicans got 44 percent of the votes statewide and 46 percent of the seats (46 of 99 seats). So, overall, there was a more or less a translation of the statewide popular vote into representation in the people’s house. In 2010, the GOP took control of state government in Wisconsin and enthusiastically began, literally, to change the political geography of the state. In the 2012 assembly elections Republicans got 47 percent of the vote and 60 percent of the seats. In 2016 they received 53 percent of the votes and 64 percent of the seats. So, if we look statewide, Democrats have received more than half (2012) or nearly half (2016) of the votes cast, and ended up with a small minority — less than 40 percent — in the legislature.

And that’s the basic question the Supreme Court is grappling with in Gill: If district maps are jiggered to a fare thee well so that a party supported by a minority of voters ends up with a dominant legislative majority, is everything still constitutionally kosher in equality town? Clearly Republican votes are worth way more in Wisconsin than Democratic votes. That’s not the issue. The real issue is how big does that inequality have to be to justify calling naughty-naughty on the legislature and forcing a districting do-over to more faithfully translate popular votes proportionally into legislative seats?

Well, there’s the rub. You need a dash of math to come up with an answer. Is it even possible to measure the degree of partisan voting inequity? Sure. Social scientists do this sort of thing for a living. The best measure available is what’s known as voting efficiency and it’s not a tough concept. Calculating it requires nothing more than voting totals, the ability to add, subtract and divide, and a cheap calculator. What you end up with is a ratio that tells you how well a party converts votes in legislative seats. So, for example, a voting efficiency gap of .20 means the majority party got 20 percent more legislative seats more than they would have if there was no hanky-panky by the district draw-ers. Undergrads can pick up the logic and the math in about 10 minutes, and I’m betting you can too. You can read a quick introduction here , and reading just the first two pages should make the concept clear.

Apparently, that’s more than Chief Justice Roberts can handle. He called the whole argument “sociological gobbledygook”, and several of his colleagues poo-pooed the idea, smirking that if the court bought into all this quantitative hocus-pocus (i.e. addition, subtraction and division), why, we’d end up with pointy headed political scientists drawing the lines for political districts. Um, well, here’s a newsflash bench-boy: We already do. Republicans and Democrats routinely pay people with our exact qualifications and skill sets seriously big bucks to draw those maps to maximize their electoral fortunes (what can I say, we need the dough). And if the Supreme Court can’t grasp the basic math used in these exercises–again, not that hard–they really have no freakin’ clue what they are dealing with.

This doesn’t seem to bother Roberts. He cheerfully said his lack of understanding, “may simply be my educational background.” That’s a gobsmacking statement. Roberts got his undergrad and law degrees at Harvard (his JD was magna cum laude). I had no clue that after spending a third world country’s GDP on an Ivy League education you could still be left incapable of grasping a basic numerical exercise, something I can get a farmer’s kid from western Nebraska to master inside a quarter hour.*

So, while the Supreme Court’s shameless flaunting of its mathematical illiteracy reflects poorly on the quality of the court’s jurisprudence, it might be good for us teaching at public universities. Roughly a third of political science majors at my institution are pre-law majors–my discipline produces a lot of lawyers (for which I’d like to formally apologize). And while we can’t give our grads the snoot value of a Hah-vahd credential, we sure as shootin’ can (and do) make sure they have a basic understanding of numbers before we release them into the wild.

We do so for a very good reason.These days, a basic quantitative skill set is a basic, and absolutely critical, tool for anyone seeking to make systematic sense out of even the most elementary disagreements about our social, political and economic worlds.  It’s apparently also a skill set that the Supreme Court loudly and proudly lacks.

*This may be an unfair comparison. Unlike Harvard trained lawyers, corn farmers have to be good with numbers if they want to make a living.

A Teaching Moment

The people who teach politics and government to college undergraduates are credited by some with truly astonishing powers of persuasion. These capabilities are supposedly deployed in the service of a Big Brother-ish conspiracy to turn higher education into an  indoctrination factory stamping out platoons of radical lefties.

I think we political scientists are often seen as prime movers behind this conspiracy because of what we do. We’re talking to young adults. Behind closed doors. About politics. What else could we be doing in there besides getting kids to turn off their phones and swear undying fealty to Karl Marx or Bernie Sanders? It’s not just us, though. The whole paranoia-tinged concern is not infrequently extended to all college instructors, even to college administrators. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos seems pretty convinced everyone on university campuses from adjunct faculty to deans are focused on politically indoctrinating impressionable young minds, telling students, “what to do, what to say and, more ominously, what to think.”

I’m genuinely curious about the details of this mighty psychological alchemy we are believed to so easily deploy. Seriously. Maybe I just missed the midnight meeting beneath the full moon when all the brainwashing cordials were being distributed. Perhaps I wasn’t at the gathering of the sacred scholastic coven where they did the mind control workshop. I freely admit this is possible. I try to avoid faculty meetings when I can. Well, whatever, I clearly missed the memo. I’ve been teaching for 25 years, and I am largely clueless as to how you locate the political thermostat on an undergraduate and effortlessly spin it around to whatever setting that keeps you ideologically warm and comfy. Even if I could find the instructional webinar on that skill set (a YouTube search yielded zilch on that front), I’m still not clear on why undergrads would consent to me fiddling around with the governor on their political passions.

And, believe me, they have political passions. Oh boy, do they have political passions. These days, college students show up politically pre-stoked and as an educator you tangle with those politics at your own risk. To get a flavor of this sort of thing, watch this video of Professor Nicholas Christakis interacting with students over the fraught issue of racial sensitivity and Halloween costumes on the Yale campus. In this exchange, the professor is  getting pressured to raise his consciousness to a different political plane by students, not the other way around. There’s a lot of this going on these days.

For those of you who watched that video and are in high dudgeon about social justice advocates piling on well meaning academics, just know the right has its equivalent. Most of us in higher education now harbor realistic worries about the blood-and-soil batty brigade showing up on the quad and doing a little light goose step cardio.  The tiki torch crowd inevitably attracts a counter-demonstration and where things spin off from there, well who knows. That sort of thing, though, is (thankfully) still a pretty rare event. Much more common is resentment against the perceived anti-Republican and anti-conservative bent of the pointy heads who supposedly run higher education as a sort of political re-education camp. Some state senators in my home state, for example, seem to be pretty convinced that my institution is openly hostile to right-leaning political viewpoints and suspect at least some departments on campus of shading the line between education and lefty indoctrination pretty fine.

These sentiments are shared by some undergrads. Ironically, though, right-leaning students now seem increasingly willing to express this resentment by using the same sort of poor-me whinging conservatives often associate with liberals. Both sides seem less interested in engaging with different viewpoints than in resenting the fact that anyone considers them legitimate. Though far from universal–and I can’t emphasize enough that lots of undergrads are more grown up that many grown ups in this debate–there seems an increasing willingness to deal with differing political views on campus by just throwing a tantrum. I’ve had to deal with several instances of students writing passive-aggressive polemics along these lines in class papers. Ditto with various of expressions of I-resent-people-questioning-my-viewpoint, and various flavors of something someone said somewhere made me feel bad and someone else should do something about it.

How do we, as educators, deal with the inchoate stew of political grievances bubbling away on various ideological burners that our students are increasingly all too happy to fuel? Some of us still secretly favor proceeding on the premise that college isn’t a place to cocoon you from the world’s sharp elbows but an institution that should equip you with the skill set to constructively deal with the disagreeable stuff that is part and parcel of our social, economic, and political worlds. These days, though, the faculty faction supporting the just-grow-the-hell-up approach is mostly underground. Give the wrong set of students the suck-it-up-buttercup treatment, or even a light let’s-think-that-through pushback, and you’re not just the social media villain du jour, you might be laying your reputation or even your career on the line (just ask Erika Cristakis).

The bottom line is that most faculty are not leading the political charge on college campuses. The vast majority of us, believe it or not, have zippo interest in assaulting the ideological heights with a pack of brainwashed undergrads at our back. Indeed, in the current political wars roiling campus, we’re more likely to be found lily livered, yellow spines aglow, hunkered down below the parapet and hoping to avoid becoming collateral damage.

As to our motivation to mold pliable young minds into whatever ideological positions we desire, let alone our ability to actually pull that off, it’s mostly not there. That’s a boogeyman that might haunt dreams in certain political quarters, and serve as a useful tactical cudgel in the ideological wars. But, seriously, any systematic attempts to convince students to adopt a political belief system wholesale is not part of the curriculum. If some rogue faculty are surreptitiously giving this a go, they are more likely to earn the contempt and resentment of their students rather than their undying fealty to a particular political cause. Undergrads are lots of things, but they’re not stupid.

The bottom line is that the persuasive powers of academics, as anyone who has ever attended a faculty meeting knows, are pretty limited. Getting undergrads to do the weekly reading assignments is hard enough.  The whole notion that we can — or would even want to — engage in deliberate ideological indoctrination is not just misguided. It’s kinda nuts.